As the overall Sunni insurgency has gained ground in Iraq, much discussion will naturally revolve around the question of which groups are the main actors in the insurgency. Here I will discuss those groups in-depth, and the relations between them.

Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS)Flag of Islamic State of Iraq.svg

Intro: An al-Qa’ida affiliate?

By far the most prominent group in terms of wider media attention, ISIS in Iraq is almost universally described as an “al-Qa’ida affiliate.” However, it should be emphasized that the evidence for this characterization can only be described as ambiguous at best, and in truth, points to ISIS not being al-Qa’ida’s branch in Iraq.

Now, it is true that one can find evidence that may suggest ISIS is an al-Qa’ida affiliate. Most notably, in his interview with al-Jazeera Arabic, Sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani of Jabhat al-Nusra- al-Qa’ida’s official Syrian affiliate- likened the existence of his group and that of ISIS to being members of “one house,” and that the issue of the disagreement over Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement of ISIS had been raised with “our amir and their amir: Aymenn al-Zawahiri, may God protect him.” There is no reason to doubt that Sheikh Jowlani sincerely believes ISIS is part of the same al-Qa’ida family.

However, ISIS originated as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI): an umbrella group formed in October 2006 and composed of a number of insurgent groups, whose main component was probably the original al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) organization, but this AQI component was quickly absorbed into ISI. When new members joined ISI, the pledge of allegiance- bay’ah– was given to the commander of ISI, not necessarily requiring one to al-Qa’ida central’s leadership as well.

Indeed, by 2007, Sheikh Zawahiri of al-Qa’ida central declared: “First, I want to clarify that there is nothing in Iraq now by the name of al-Qa’ida, but Tanzim al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn joined- by Allah’s preference- other jihadi groups in the Islamic State of Iraq.” While it would seem that in his ruling last year for the dissolution of ISIS, Sheikh Zawahiri assumed that Sheikh Baghdadi would defer to his authority, likely on account of Sheikh Baghdadi’s apparent history as a leading member in AQI who would not have forgotten his bay’ah to the central organization (just like Sheikh Jowlani, who was an AQI and ISI veteran), Sheikh Baghdadi’s rejection of the ruling indicates the true break between ISIS and al-Qa’ida central.

On the ground, some ISIS mujahideen accept this break as reality, and thus members in Syria like the British mujahid Abu Qaa’qaa explicitly reject identification as al-Qa’ida. Others I know express ambivalence: thus one native Syrian member of ISIS in Ghouta, Damascus province, said to me that he had pledged bay’ah to Sheikh Baghdadi but did not know if in turn Sheikh Baghdadi had pledged allegiance to Sheikh Zawahiri.

Also of relevance here is how ISIS’ commander projects himself and how the group projects its goals. Although the amir of ISIS for Idlib province has denied that ISIS’ overall amir considers himself a caliph, it is hard not to draw that conclusion from the title assumed: “amir al-mu’mineen” (“commander of the believers”- a traditional title of caliphs) in addition to claimed descent from the family of the Prophet Mohammed (“al-Husseini”) and the tribe of the Prophet (“al-Quraishi”). In addition, more so than any other group, ISIS places particular emphasis on the imminent establishment of a Caliphate (e.g. with the slogan “the promised project of the Caliphate”), and images of the world under the iSIS banner regularly appear in pro-ISIS social media circles.

It should be noted that these aspirations of Caliphate and world domination are not so openly projected by ISIS within Iraq, as I have outlined before. However, that does not mean ISIS in Iraq has abandoned these goals. It is simply a matter of trying to take advantage of growing Sunni Arab disillusionment with the government and portraying itself as the upholder of their interests.

Perhaps the most explicit distancing yet of al-Qa’ida central from ISIS on the part of a senior jihadi comes from Sheikh Abu Khalid al-Suri: a supposed Ahrar ash-Sham official and al-Qa’ida central member who was appointed by Sheikh Zawahiri to mediate between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. In light of the ongoing fighting between ISIS and various rebel groups in Syria, Sheikh Abu Khalid released a statement condemning ISIS’ conduct and decrying ISIS’ “crimes” being committed “in the name of jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state, and being attributed to” figures like Sheikh Zawahiri and Sheikh Osama bin Laden [i.e. on account of media coverage calling ISIS an al-Qa’ida affiliate]. His statement added that these al-Qa’ida figures are “innocent of what is being attributed to them, just as the wolf was innocent of spilling the blood of Ibn Yaqub.” He concludes with a call for ISIS members to repent for their conduct.

Operations and Activities

Of all the militant groups in Iraq, ISIS stands out for having the most extensive financial resources (in large part deriving from the fact that in Mosul, from which the government ultimately failed to dislodge the group even during the surge, ISIS is the Mafia), manpower and range of operations, with the occasional ability to conduct attacks in the predominantly Shi’a areas of the soutb (e.g. Najaf, Karbala, Kut and Wasit). Similarly, coordinated bomb attacks in Baghdad can be reliably traced to ISIS: something other insurgent groups have so far proven themselves incapable of carrying out.

By province, ISIS is by far strongest in Anbar province, where the group operates clandestine training camps and has until this month maintained a rather shadowy existence, conducting some hard-hitting attacks over the past few months including a string of several suicide bomb attacks in a single day targeting local police in the town of Rawa.

Currently, the group remains in control of parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, following on from their entry with the withdrawal of the Iraqi army in the face of widespread Sunni anger at Maliki’s attempt to dismantle the Ramadi camp protest site. Some of the more recent operations in Anbar include firing mortar rounds at Sahwa leader Abu Risha’s estate and heavy fighting with security forces in a number of urban Anbar locations including Street 60 and al-Mal’ab quarter in Ramadi as well as the al-Khaldiya area near Fallujah.

To a limited extent, the group in Anbar has had a boost in manpower provided from eastern Syria, both with influx of muhajireen (as related on the testimony of Abu Qaa’qaa) and the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership in the Deir az-Zor border town of Albukamal/Abu Kamal, along with Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya’s overall leader, entered into Iraq for much of 2013 to aid ISIS in the fight against government forces. The latter points were related to me by a Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya fighter, who also told me that his group like ISIS supports a Caliphate stretching first over Iraq and Bilad ash-Sham.

Outside of Anbar, the group has regularly conducted attacks on the Iraqi army in various districts of Mosul, has targeted the Shi’a Turkmen of Tuz Kharmuto with bomb attacks, and has various pinpoints of activity including the Baiji area of Salah ad-Din province, Jurf al-Sakhr in northern Babil province (just south of Baghdad), and the Tarmiya area of northern Baghdad province, where assaults have been regularly launched on “Sahwa” forces, culminating in a mass execution of 18 Sunnis suspected of being “Sahwa” in November.

Last year also saw the significant development of ISIS operations within Iraqi Kurdistan with the Arbil bombings in September, claimed by ISIS in retaliation for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s supposed support for the “PKK” in Syria. Indeed, ISIS in Syria has seen an infusion of some Iraqi Kurdish manpower that appears to be alternating back and forth between Syria and Iraq. In a major assault launched by ISIS on security forces in Kirkuk in early December, it emerged from ISIS sources that the leaders of the operation- all eventually killed- were Kurdish.

As security has continued to deteriorate in Iraq and ISIS has increased its strength, ISIS is advertising its presence more openly with social media output, in particular from Salah ad-Din, Anbar, Ninawa and Diyala provinces.

Active since at least 2007, this group is the latest incarnation of Ansar al-Islam, which was an al-Qa’ida-linked group in Iraqi Kurdistan dismantled after the U.S. invasion, and Ansar al-Sunna, most active during the height of the insurgency in Iraq (2003-6). JAI- almost entirely Sunni Arab with perhaps a small remnant of the original Kurdish Ansar al-Islam component (hence JAI messages released in Kurdish on special occasions)- is primarily based in Kirkuk and Ninawa provinces, having put out a special video for Eid al-Fitr last year on “Protection of the Abode” in Ninawa.

Further, when it comes to military operations, JAI frequently claims attacks in Ninawa (the Mosul area in particular)- normally targeting the Iraqi security services- and Kirkuk. JAI has also carried out operations in Salah ad-Din and Diyala provinces and even in the Baghdad area, but no major points south. In addition, the group lacks a substantial presence in Anbar province. Also, despite the ultimate Iraqi Kurdistan origin in the Ansar al-Islam predecessor, it should be noted that the group claims no meaningful presence or operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, in contrast to the tendency for Kurdish media to initially blame “Ansar al-Islam” for any attacks that occur within the autonomous region.

Date of Operation


Type of Attack

2nd June 2013


IED attack on army; 2 officers, 1 soldier killed.

9th August 2013

Al-Ma’mun Quarter, Mosul

Assault on the home of an “apostate” working for intelligence services (Mohammed Atiyeh al-Bajari): target assassinated.

19th August 2013

Al-Ma’mun Quarter, Mosul

Assassination of “apostate” Mohammed Ayoub, working for intelligence services.

21st August 2013

New Mosul

Assassination of member of federal police

18th September 2013

Al-Rashad Quarter, Kirkuk

Assassinating army officer with machine gun fire

28th September 2013

Kirkuk-Tikrit Road

3 army soldiers killed in an ambush

9th October 2013

Al-Sakak Quarter, Samarra, Salah ad-Din Province

IED attack on federal police

28th October 2013

Kirkuk-Tikrit Road

IED attack, precise target unclear

28th November 2013

Near al-Daba’ airport, Kirkuk

IED attack targeting army

29th November 2013

Al-Dujail, Salah ad-Din Province

IED attack on local police (“Rafidite police”- Dujail being a Shi’i area).

1st December 2013


IED attack on “Rafidite police.”

6th December 2013


Bomb attack targeting “abode of Rafidites”

7th December 2013


Bomb attacks targeting “three abodes of an officer in the Rafidite army.”

8th December 2013

Al-Qadisiya Quarter, Kirkuk

Bomb attack targeting a “Rafidite abode.”

9th December 2013

Jawla, Diyala Province

Assassination of a Shi’i militia leader.

12th December 2013

New Baghdad, Baghdad

Assassination of a member of “the Rafidite militias”

13th December 2013

Baiji, Salah ad-Din Province

Targeting “cars belonging to the Nusayri regime” and carrying fuel.

5th January 2014

Al-Tanak Quarter, Mosul

Targeting electrical company base affiliated with “Rafidite army” with 60mm mortar rounds.

7th January 2014


IED attack on a Humvee vehicle. “3 apostates” killed.

11th January 2014


Heavy clashes with the army at 10:45-11:00 p.m.

Figure 44: Table showing some operations claimed by JAI sources since June 2013.

While these operations are not insignificant, in frequency and scale they are simply dwarfed by ISIS’ capabilities for just one province in a single month. For example, see this list of ISIS Anbar operations for Sha’aban 1434 AH (11th June-9th July 2013), counting just over 100 operations. See also this list of ISIS Ninawa operations for Rabi’ al-Akhir 1434 AH (11th February-12th March 2013), counting 171 operations, and this list of 15 ISIS Ninawa operations over just three days this month.

Ideologically, there is little to separate JAI and ISIS. Like ISIS in Iraq, JAI projects an image of being the protector of the country’s Sunnis. Thus, in the “Protection of the Abode” video from Ninawa referenced above, the speaker makes clear that the Abu Bakr al-Sadiq battalion was formed “at this time to protect/support our Muslim brothers from the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamaat…we ask God to bless our work, to bless our jihad, in support of our Muslim brothers oppressed in every place.”

The group’s discourse, like that of ISIS, is also strongly anti-Shi’i. As can be observed above, the references to the Shi’a as “Rafidites” is quite normal for JAI, and in the video, the speaker mentions: “And we [the Ahl al-Sunna] tell you [the Rafidites], we are advancing on you.” JAI is also quite willing to declare takfir on Sunnis who work in the security forces or otherwise cooperate with the government, as can be ascertained from Figure 44.

Most importantly, there is a transnational aspect to the group’s rhetoric and aims, tying the struggle against the Maliki government to the Syrian rebels’ fight against the Assad regime and accusing both of waging war on the Ahl al-Sunna. As for JAI’s long-term aim, both JAI supporters within Iraq and members have affirmed to me that JAI supports the establishment of a Caliphate, though JAI is not an al-Qa’ida affiliate.

The ideological similarities with ISIS notwithstanding, JAI is noteworthy for its tensions with ISIS. When I asked one ISIS fighter within Iraq how were relations between ISIS and JAI, he affirmed to me that while ISIS appreciates JAI’s efforts to overthrow the Shi’i-led government in Iraq, ISIS has a problem with the fact that JAI apparently does not support the “project of a Caliphate.” To be sure, not all ISIS members think of JAI in the same way: another fighter based in the Fallujah area in contrast simply thought that JAI had pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2009.

Conversely, all JAI supporters and members I know use the derogatory acronym da3esh (which has gained currency among Syrian rebels opposed to ISIS) to refer to ISIS. One member of JAI explained the problem thus: namely, that while ISIS are brothers who share the same creed as that of JAI, the fact that ISIS considers itself a “state” and behaves as such- rather than accepting that it is only a “group” like others- is problematic.

It should be noted that such a complaint is identical to what Syrian rebel leaders and fighters have said. Indeed, in reaction to the ISIS fighter’s claim that JAI does not support a Caliphate, a JAI supporter based in Mosul told me on 27 December: “Brother, this talk of da3esh has been applied to all jihadi groups in Iraq, and now they [ISIS] are doing the same thing in Syria” [emphasis my own].

For instance, Ahrar ash-Sham’s leader Hassan Abboud in an interview with al-Jazeera Arabic complained of the fact that ISIS does not accept that it is a “faction among factions” and accordingly does not submit to higher independent authority in resolution of disputes. Similarly, note this statement issued by Revolutionary Military Council and other factions in the Aleppo provincial town of Manbij in late August (when ISIS was one of many groups in the town): “To our brothers in the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham….First: the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in Manbij is to be considered a military faction like the rest of the factions.”

The statement goes on to make clear that ISIS should therefore not interfere in civil matters or the running of services, and should submit to the authority of the town’s Shari’a Committee (for example, on the question of detaining rival fighters: forbidden from doing so unless with the committee’s authority). For ISIS’ consideration of itself as a “state” predetermined to be sole rulers meant that the group had tried to seize a monopoly on services like bread production and had detained rivals arbitrarily.

The result of the tensions between JAI and ISIS has been frequent clashes, primarily in the Kirkuk and Mosul areas. For example, see this report relying on a local Kirkuk police source in September and published by an Iraqi outlet tied to Shi’a Kurds: though the report speaks of “Ansar al-Sunna,” it is actually JAI. Later that month, the National Iraqi News Agency reported that two ISIS members were killed just west of Kirkuk by unidentified gunmen, suspected of being JAI. In a similar vein, my pro-JAI contact reported to me on 27 December that over the past nine months, ISIS had killed around 40 members of JAI, including on that very day two members of the group, of whom one was a preacher and imam in a Mosul mosque.

To be sure, on occasion JAI has tried to downplay tensions with ISIS, such as in a JAI Mosul statement from June 2013 denying media claims that JAI had announced war on ISIS: “We- JAI’s Mosul leadership- announce officially that no decision has been issued by the JAI leadership on the organization of Jamaat Dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiya in Mosul. Period…[The claim of war declaration] is completely divorced from the truth.” However, last month JAI’s leadership released a message of appeal to Sheikh Zawahiri, calling on him to restrain the excesses of his “division (Jamaat Dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiya)” that were hindering potential cooperation between JAI and ISIS, including problems of detainees of JAI being held in ISIS prisons, and threats of fighting and takfir.

Note in particular the language of these official JAI statements. They refuse to refer to ISIS by the latter’s own name, but instead put it on an equal with JAI by calling it a ‘Jamaat’ (‘group/organization’) and align with Sheikh Zawahiri not only in rejecting the notion of ISIS extending itself into Syria but also in assuming ISIS as subordinate to Sheikh Zawahiri’s authority.

For the future, tensions remain set to continue, and JAI supporters and members have expressed to me pessimism about the ultimate course of the current renewal of the Sunni insurgency, not only in the belief that there are too many Sunni collaborators with the government, but also that ISIS will ruin it through its excessive conduct.

One of the older insurgent groups, the IAI’s influence has greatly diminished since the days of the surge as many of its fighters joined the ranks of the Sahwa against ISI. Nonetheless, the group still has active members and claims operations. Below is a recent sample. It should be noted that IAI attacks are claimed as having been carried out in coordination with other groups (“factions of the resistance”- to use their own words; see next paragraph) and “sons of the tribes.” The IAI’s reliance on coordination- unlike both ISIS and JAI, which can generally carry out attacks on their own- illustrates the relative military weakness of the group.

The recent operations- to be found in most Sunni Arab areas- have often occurred during and after moments of new crisis (e.g. the massacre of protestors at the Hawija site in April 2013 etc.). Otherwise, prior to the U.S. withdrawal, most IAI operations- tied in with its membership in the Iraqi Resistance Council- were directed at the “American enemy.”

Date of Operation


Type of Attack

30th December 2013

Makishifa (northern Samarra)

Attack on federal police with light and medium weaponry.

30th December 2013

Baiji, Salah ad-Din province

IED attack on government forces.

31st December 2013

Ramadi, Anbar province

Attack on Swat forces with light and medium weaponry on Street 17, including assault on governor’s building.

4th May 2013

Al-Qadisiya Quarter, Mosul

Clashes with the “Safavid army” with light and medium weaponry

26th April 2013

Al-Azim area (between Diyala and Kirkuk provinces)

Attack on “Safavid army” base.

26th April 2013


Clash with “Safavid army” convoy

26th April 2013

Fallujah, Anbar province

Attack on a federal police base with light and medium weaponry

26th April 2013

Al-Taji, Baghdad area

Attack on Iraqi army with 2 RPG7 missiles

25th April 2013

Sansal, Diyala province

Attack on army base with 82mm mortar rounds

Figure 62: Recent IAI operations, all carried out in coordination with other factions

The group’s ideology is Sunni Iraqi nationalist and Salafist- deriving from the growth of Salafism among Iraq’s Sunnis in the 1990s, partly abetted by the Saddam regime’s adoption of a somewhat Islamic face- but nothing indicates support for a transnational project akin to the visions of ISIS and JAI. As can be seen from the above, one of the main overlaps is in the use of the term “Safavid” in opposition to the government and army.

Besides this, the IAI has also appealed to “our people [i.e. the Ahl al-Sunna] in Syria” in a message dated 2nd June 2013 on the Battle of Qusayr between Syrian rebels and Assad forces backed by Hezbollah, advising the rebels how best to conduct warfare in this case. The IAI suggested to the rebels to engage in “dispersed warfare, by striking as far away as you can in all places, in order to disperse the force of your enemy and broaden the arena of the blazing battle.”

The IAI went on to characterize the fight for Qusayr in religious terms, describing it as a “religious battle, as the enemy are only hostile to you for your faith, and only resent you for your aqeeda [creed],” adding that “Iran has truly made from Syria an arena advancing its malice and its criminal enterprises attacking the Ummah of Mohammed (PBUH)…announcing its waging war in Syria with the support of Iraq, which it destroyed, and the militias of Hizb ash-Shaytan, which it trained; it has also recruited for that battle all the despicable elements from the sectarian militias in Iraq, and has sent its elite forces to manage the conflict, so that it will be a Sunni identity battle just as it is in Iraq…so we announced offering support in all forms and without exception to our brothers in Syria.”

The IAI is distinguished from JAI and ISIS in having an official political office and wing, identifying with the old Ba’athist flag of Iraq. Thus, its official media spokesperson is one Sheikh Ahmad Dabbash, who has interacted with the Sunni protest movement that arose at the end of 2012. Specifically, he has been involved in interactions with the Herak Six Provinces Movement, being interviewed in July on a meeting held by the “‘ulama of the Ahl al-Sunna” on the situation facing the Sunni community in Iraq.

Also of interest in this context is a statement from the media committee of the IAI put out on the 30th December 2012 (just as the protest movement took off), which states that “the Sunni Popular Movement (al-Hirak ash-Sha’abi as-Sunni, a Salafist subsidiary of the Six Provinces Movement that has primarily had influence in Anbar) represents an extension of what the Iraqi Resistance, which ended the American military occupation, has implemented, just as it represents an anchoring for its vision in change and reform that the commander of the Islamic Army of Iraq- may God protect him- expressed in the speech of victory on 6th January 2012, where he called for work to restore Iraq’s Arab and Islamic identity.”

This is the most explicit evidence for the Sunni Popular Movement as an activist wing of the IAI. The Sunni Popular Movement- established at the beginning of 2012 soon after the American withdrawal- has called for a Sunni federal region in Iraq, indicating in turn the IAI’s national focus in contrast to ISIS and JAI’s support for a Caliphate.

It is therefore apparent that the IAI has tried to exert more influence through politics and protests, but with the renewal of the insurgency, the IAI’s commander issued a new statement at the start of this year praising the mujahideen in general, “the descendants of Omar bin Khattab” (the second caliph and an important figure in Iraqi Sunni Arabs’ expression of identity), and declaring that “defensive jihad is an obligation on all people.”

Even so, the Sunni Popular Movement maintains its existence, and its spokesman- Sheikh Farouq al-Zufuri– gave an interview at the beginning of this month in which he emphasized that Fallujah- where he is currently serving as a member of the governing Majlis al-‘Ulama– is in the hands of local tribesmen and that, contrary to media claims, there are no “terrorists” in the town, later making it clear that by this word he means “da3esh and others.” Note again the derogatory term used for ISIS- the same one used by JAI members- indicating that IAI is at odds with ISIS, and to the extent that IAI is playing a role in insurgent control of Fallujah, it is doing so in coalition with other groups and not ISIS. Further clarification of the ISIS-insurgents relationship in Fallujah will be given later.

JRTN- whose name translates to “Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order”- has been and remains Iraq’s main Ba’athist insurgent group. It is headed by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who was Saddam’s right-hand man during the Ba’athist regime. The adherence to the Ba’athist vision, with its ideal of a unified pan-Arab body, is made clear in the logo of Figure 63, featuring countries with Arabic as an official language as one entity, besides the use of the old Ba’athist flag (that said, historically the Iraqi Ba’ath did not actively work to realize such a goal). Douri also heads the SCJL, of which the JRTN is by far the main component.

However, the JRTN also places an emphasis on the language of jihad and, as its name suggests, the Naqshbandi brand of Sufi Islam. Thus, in a statement outlining its aqeeda, the JRTN declares its first principle to be “the definition of tasawwuf [a Sufi principle] and its importance,” pointing out that “tasawwuf has many definitions so the qadi Zakariya al-Ansari who said: ‘Tasawwuf is knowledge by which the circumstances of the purification of souls are known as well as the purification of morals’.”

The second principle is “the Naqshbandi path,” as the JRTN proceeds to outline the origin of this path, concluding that “our aqeeda is derived from the book and the Sunnah with an understanding of Salf and Saleh, so we do not declare takfir on anyone from the Ahl al-Qibla.” Even with judges who do not give precedence to the law of God Almighty, the JRTN affirms it will offer them advice and not declared takfir “unless they abandon the law of God Almighty in disdain and scorn or have disavowed anything from knowledge of the religion by necessity.” The affirmation and explanation of rejection of takfir contrasts somewhat with JAI and ISIS’ willingness to declare takfir.

Coming to the language of jihad, one finds a statement released on 21st April 2013 by JRTN’s military spokesman after the Hawija massacre. The statement begins by citing the Qur’anic verse traditionally invoked as a justification for armed defensive jihad: namely, 22:39. He addresses the “sons of the Iraqi tribes, believing, patient, waging jihad,” but the Ba’athist ideology becomes clear as he also called them “sons of our Arab Islamic Ummah.” He laments the occupation of Iraq over 10 years by a Zionist-Persian-American conspiracy, while attacking the current “sectarian government.”

He goes on to speak of the protestors who showed up in the “squares of pride and dignity [the main sit-in squares] to turn towards their capital, Baghdad, demonstrate peacefully and demand the rights of the people…but the sectarian collaborationist government…prevented the people from [attaining] that…and has continued carrying out arrests, executions, followed by attacks on demonstrators and peaceful sit-ins in the demonstration and sit-in squares,” referencing clashes in Fallujah, Mosul, Diyala and Hawija. He cites the government’s actions as “evidence of its sectarianism,” and declares that the “peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins will not continue,” calling for a united front against the government.

It is important to note here that like the IAI, JRTN has maintained a political activist wing: namely, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq, which existed prior to the outbreak of the protests at the end of 2012. That Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq is a front group for JRTN is demonstrable on numerous counts. For example, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq’s social media pages routinely advertise new JRTN statements (and of no other militant group) as soon as they are released.

The discourses of JRTN and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq reveal several overlaps of themes, most notably the importance of reclaiming Baghdad. Thus in Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq protests, a common slogan has been “Qadimun, ya Baghdad” (“Coming, oh Baghdad!”), which is featured in a February 2013 protest in Diyala celebrating Naqshibandi presence in a village called Jalula. In a similar vein, there is a well-known JRTN nasheed entitled, “Ya Baghdad, jayna juyush jarara!” (“Oh Baghdad, we have come as huge armies!”), a refrain that has often been heard at Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq demonstrations, such as these two in Fallujah and Tikrit in February 2013. These slogans illustrate the revolutionary intentions of both JRTN and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq.

Also of relevance is the fact that just as JRTN called for an end to peaceful protests after the Hawija massacre, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq’s official spokesman- Dr. Ghazi Faisal- announced in an interview with the Saudi channel Wesal TV that the group was now abandoning the path of peaceful sit-ins and preparing to commit to armed jihad.

From late May 2013 until the end of December of that year, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq output almost entirely ceased, likely coinciding with a subsequent JRTN retreat into the shadows after an upsurge in insurgent activity after Hawija, as JRTN and their supporters, who dominated the Hawija protest site, came to regret the clashes with the Iraqi army in light of Kurdish attempts to take advantage of the situation and expand.

Coinciding with JRTN influence, Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq tended to hold demonstrations in Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and Ninawa provinces. In Anbar, the influence was less apparent, and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq supporters normally congregated in ‘extremists’ corner’ in Fallujah along with the ISIS supporters. One useful advantage of the existence of Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq was that, given its ties to JRTN, its own reports via social media (namely Facebook, though the original page has unfortunately been deleted) could be used to track JRTN-linked militant clashes (all deemed to be the work of “sons of the tribes”) with the Iraqi security forces, primarily tracing to the northern provinces.

This contrasts with the relative scant claimed attacks from JRTN’s official website, which gives occasional videos of missile and mortar strikes on claimed bases belonging to “the American enemy” (on the JRTN’s belief there is still an ongoing U.S. military presence and occupation). On other occasions, JRTN has sought to downplay accusations of conducting certain operations. Given JRTN’s Ba’athist ideology, it is naturally opposed to any notion of Kurdish autonomy, and has been accused by Kurds of planting car bombs in Kirkuk.

However, JRTN’s main official spokesman- Dr. Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi- denied these allegations in a statement in May commenting on a recent attack in Kirkuk, affirming: “Verily our Iraqi people in all its sects have known our army over the past 10 years for its jihad and resistance to the occupiers, and we are proud of it…and as for the explosions targeting the sons of our people [in Kirkuk] and the killing of them in these savage ways, this is not of our nature….and indeed the sole perpetrator of these explosions and the like is the Safavid sectarian collaborationist government…as it spills the blood of Iraqis and carries out bomb attacks in the south, north and center, against Sunnis, Shi’a, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen: against all sects and ethnicities of the Iraqi people.”

Note the language of this statement in trying to appeal across sectarian divides, even though it is quite apparent that the worldview of the JRTN- and its activist wing Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq- is based on Sunni Arab sectarianism: also adopted by the supreme commander Douri. This dissonance reflects the ideological tension between the Sunni Sufi Naqshbandi religious face and the underlying Ba’athist ideology, which in drawing members of the Ba’ath party did not in theory discriminate between sect and would even draw in non-Arabs to espouse the cause (cf. Taha Yassin Ramadan, the Kurdish vice-president of Iraq under Saddam).

JRTN cross-sectarian messaging has occurred elsewhere. The most recent example is the case of the string of “Military Councils for the Revolutionaries of the Tribes” (MCRTs, though sometimes the word ‘tribes’ is omitted) that have sprung up in multiple areas since the start of this year. The origin of this phenomenon can be traced to the “Military Council for the Revolutionaries of the Tribes of Anbar,” which issued a statement emphasizing a role in defending the tribesmen against government aggression, while also stating “we do not accept any harm against any sect, school of thought or ethnicity.” Though the council, which is currently dominant in Fallujah, does use the old Ba’athist flag of Iraq, it is by no means the case that JRTN is the dominant faction.

Nevertheless, the subsequent military councils that have sprung up elsewhere are primarily a JRTN (or to cover more broadly, SCJL) phenomenon, while JRTN’s official website has since 1st January. Whereas the Anbar MCRT maintains its own Youtube channel, subsequent MCRTs have been announced via Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq’s channel, with social media pages from these other areas sometimes sharing JRTN graphics and others praising Saddam.

Note in particular the case of the announcement via Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq of an MCRT for Karbala province- featuring a portrait of Ali to emphasize a Shi’i identity. A parallel to this JRTN cross-sectarian messaging occurred in May 2013 when Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq featured a photo on its now deleted Facebook page showing a joint Sunni-Shi’i prayer in solidarity against the “Safavid” occupation of Iraq, highlighting for good measure those praying in the Shi’i manner with their arms by their sides.

The downside of the Ba’athist ideology and the cross-sectarian messaging is liability to arouse suspicion from both ISIS and JAI circles about whether the JRTN can ultimately be seen as a true ally for advancing the cause of the Ahl al-Sunna. In turn, JRTN and front components can have differing attitudes about the likes of ISIS.

Thus, while MCRT in Mosul can hail ISIS in Ninawa province- namely, as the “lions of the desert” who represent their “hope” in the fight against the government- JRTN-linked fighters in Fallujah– expressing their hopes to conquer Baghdad (a common JRTN theme)- and emphasize that they are not ISIS, using the derisive acronym da3esh to refer to ISIS. As for ISIS and JAI circles, one ISIS supporter in Iraq told me that “they [JRTN] use words by which you can know what is their manhaj [political program]: ‘nationality, Arab ummah, civilians.’ [So] of course [I have] no trust [in them].” In a similar vein, my JAI-supporting friend in Mosul dismissed the JRTN as a group standing for “mundane things.”

Jaysh al-Izza wa al-Karama, whose name translates to “Army of Pride and Dignity” (hence the “ADP” acronym used above), is a new group that first arose in Anbar at the very end of last year, with subsequent branches claimed in other Sunni areas under a supposed general leadership with an official media spokesman (Dr. Mohammed Naser al-Abdallah). However, it is by no means apparent that this group has a strict formal command structure, but is rather just a banner around which those wishing to take up arms can gather, and it should be noted that this name is not original and was used as a meme several times in the 2012-13 protests.

Here is an excerpt of the ADP’s first statement:

“Oh sons of our Islamic Ummah, oh sons of our great Iraqi people, falsehood has continued in its oppression and darkness, and its [falsehood’s] people have not ceased in what they have obtained from the bloodshed of our youth, forcing our people to emigrate, arresting our men, and violation of our dignity…and they committed aggression on our people in the province of Anbar with killing and violation of our taboos in the ugliest manner that the raiding armies do in another attempt by which they want to dispossess [us] of pride and dignity before dispossessing us of identity, entity and life.”

The next branch to emerge was in Mosul, with the speaker citing Qur’an 22:39 as a justification for a defensive jihad: “We are mujahideen from the sons of Mosul, we announce the formation Jaysh al-Izza wa al-Karama in Mosul,” while declaring solidarity with their “brothers” in Anbar against the aggression of Maliki and his “militias,” who are also said to be operating in Mosul. Subsequent videos of ADP operations have emerged, including al-Mal’ab quarter in Ramadi, al-Karma in the Fallujah area, Agricultural Reform quarter in Mosul, and Samarra. In terms of the attitudes towards ISIS, there is no evidence of hostility, as the ADP hailed the “heroes of the revolutionaries of the tribes” [i.e. ISIS] for capturing members of the security forces in Ramadi.

Kata’ib Thuwar al-Sunna

Like ADP, this group also seems to be primarily a banner rather than an organization like ISIS or JAI.


This year represents a renewal of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. While 2013 with its upsurge in violence might be seen as analogous to 2003, this year could be seen as analogous to 2004 with the ongoing battle for control of Ramadi and Fallujah, two key cities of the insurgency a decade ago. However, it is clear that ISIS remains by far the most powerful in terms of financial resources and ability to conduct operations.

Further, the insurgency- given that Sunni Arabs remain a demographic minority, the government has established security forces, and the Sunni Arabs lost the Battle for Baghdad in 2006-7- remains unable to overthrow the government. Of the other groups, JRTN and its fronts remain the most viable nationalist alternative to ISIS for those wishing to take up arms, but it is by no means apparent, despite the apparent tensions between ISIS and JAI in particular, that the other groups can pose a viable challenge to ISIS militarily for now, preoccupied as they are with fighting government forces. Attitudes remain too diverse for a Sahwa 2.0, though an attempt at such an initiative may well happen if ISIS overplays its hand again.

Fault for the renewal of the insurgency- rather than fatalistic ‘spillover’ from Syria (in fact, the ‘spillover’ generally goes the other way round) primarily lies with the Shi’a-led government’s policies: not simply Maliki. Many commentators have pointed to the need for de-Ba’athification reform to conciliate the Sunni Arab population, but it is often forgotten that Maliki in cooperation with Sunni deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, who has since turned against the government and denounced the army as “sectarian,” did put de-Ba’athification reform legislation to the parliament last spring, which was then blocked by Sunni opponents of Mutlaq within the highly fragmented Iraqiya bloc and the Sadrists, despite the media narrative of Muqtada al-Sadr as someone who supports Sunni protest demands.

That said, Maliki’s own paranoia and overreactions were behind two key moves that gave boosts to the insurgency: namely, moving in on the Hawija protest site (resulting in a massacre; it is true that acting Defense Minister Sa’adun Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab, also called for move, but he has no real power and is a de facto figurehead for Maliki’s monopoly on security and defense), and the move against the Ramadi protest site. In the case of the latter, a desire to win Shi’a support for the upcoming elections must be part of the explanation, as I observed Shi’a both in Iraq and in exile declaring support for the Ramadi blunder.

The timescale for quelling the current insurgency will require years of work, and not merely months, as the problem is no longer just one one of lack of local Sunni cooperation with the security forces, but people returning to take up arms. Some elements remain irredeemable: above all ISIS. Hence, military force cannot be excluded as a part of the solution. However, ultimately the Shi’a political blocs as a whole must understand the need for security forces- in particular the army- to be less heavy-handed towards Sunni locals and for political reforms to reverse aspects of de-Ba’athification that have essentially been de-Sunnification. In turn, Ayad Allawi of Iraqiya needs to appreciate that his bloc- to the extent that it can even be called a coalition- has been a total failure in trying to advance Sunni Arab interests, as he has spent most of his time in exile and has failed to prevent fragmentation of the bloc.

Jihadology | January 23, 2014

Middle East Forum

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.